Hartsville, S.C. — At almost every campaign stop Newt Gingrich has made in this state, he finds an opportunity to remind his audiences that he is one of them: a Southerner proud of and devoted to the ways of the South.
“I’m Newt Gingrich. I want to thank the people of South Carolina for being so hospitable,” he said onstage Thursday at CNN’s Republican debate. “As a Georgian, it feels good to be back at home in the South.”
Gingrich has surged in the past few days after struggling to find a consistent theme in response to a barrage of attacks against him in Iowa. The resurgence owes a lot to Gingrich’s strong debate performances, which have relied on a personal intangible that his opponents have been unable to match.
Call it Southern swagger.
Part of his success in South Carolina is attributable to his ability to meet people where they live, in the cultural sense, playing directly to their regional sense of self.
“We also have a very deep strain in us that often our intellectuals are terrified of, and it comes in part from South Carolina and from Western North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s the Jacksonian tradition,” Gingrich said at an event in Duncan, S.C., near the North Carolina border, last week. “[President Andrew] Jackson represented a Scotch-Irish tradition that was represented not far up the road here in Kings Mountain where the Americans cheerfully gathered together and slaughtered the British in revenge. . . . We are a tough country, we are a country that believes in a flag that has a snake on it that says ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ ”
For Gingrich, South Carolina has been home turf, and rope line by rope line, he has won over people across this state who see in him a fellow traveler who speaks their language and can draw a clear contrast with President Obama.
They treat him like family, offering two-handed shakes, pats on the shoulder and “God bless you, Newt.” Often, they lean in close to whisper in his ear or they will rattle off where they are from — Augusta, Orangeburg, Spartanburg — and run through their family lines to see if there are family ties.
On the debate stage, Gingrich is the happy Southern warrior, reading the crowds like a Baptist preacher searching for the Amen corner.
And he has found a huge base of support, rousing the audiences to standing ovations, with his specific knowledge of state issues, and the pit-bull charisma of a well-mannered rebel.
“Mitt Romney, he’s too much of a gentleman,” said Tom Merriman, 56, of Lexington, S.C. “Newt is more confident and plainspoken.”
In contrast to Romney, who has taken to dressing down and preferring to wear no tie, Gingrich almost always appears here in a suit and tie and prefers to lecture like the college professor he once was, rather than just talk.
Still, Gingrich has found an easy connection with audiences in almost every setting.
With the penny-loafer set, he can name-drop Strom Thurmond, as he has done several times, and talk about Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., where one of his daughters went to school.
And at a stop in Rock Hill, he asked that all of the young people in the crowd come up onstage to prove a point about the burdens of mounting debt for the next generation.
But he had another point.
“This is a little like church,” he said, as the crowd laughed in recognition.
With the pickup truck crowd, he can talk about hunting with some cultural authority, while admitting he’s not much of a hunter.
“This is my brother Randy, from a hunting and fishing background. Randy has a particular relevance first because he is the leading hunter in the family, many of you who like to hunt, he’ll be glad to chat with you later on and compare notes,” he said at a stop in rural Walterboro. “For any of you who like the Second Amendment and like to talk about firearms, he’s great.”
Then Gingrich went on to make an environmentalism argument about how hunters are “among our most passionate conservationists, because they are actually out in the woods.”
While Romney has been a whirling dervish of handshakes and smiles on the stump, often standing next to top surrogate S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley onstage and pointing to people in the crowd, Gingrich brings a steady ease.
Even in potentially uncomfortable settings.
Last week, Gingrich appeared at Jones Memorial AME church, where he faced a steady stream of questions about comments he made about blacks and welfare.
Again, he mentioned Thurmond, but he also talked about his work with Al Sharpton and also mentioned Donna Brazile.
And even though the questions were tough, there was a familiarity.
“How you doin’, Newt?” E.T. Williams said, just before a tough question on Gingrich’s comments about child janitors.
Later, Williams had another question.
“It’s me again, Newt,” he said, launching into a plea for Gingrich to get off of Obama’s back.
Gingrich responded with ease and a compliment.
“I think you just gave the best case for Obama he’s going to get,” he said. “If I were him, I’d take that statement and turn it into a campaign commercial.”
By the time it was over, he was enveloped in a prayer circle, then made his way to the church basement where he shook more hands over a chicken dinner.
In this latest stretch of campaigning, Gingrich, who has been dogged by questions about his personal life, could win based on his personal background, an argument that he is increasingly eager to make.
“I do believe that a solid Georgia Conservative is a lot more likely to debate and defeat Barack Obama than a Massachusetts moderate,” he said.